What is bingata?
'Bingata' or Ryukyu-bingata' translating to scarlet pattern ('scarlet' in this case is referring to all colours, and 'pattern' referring to the stencil used in bingata) is a traditional stencil dyeing technique using natural pigments and dyes from Okinawa.
Bingata are typically densely packed repetitive patterns and use bright colours of the sea, sky, greenery, and flowers, reflecting the colourful environment in Okinawa. You many recognise bingata by its typical bright yellow base colour decorated with scarlet, bright blue, violet, and green, although it is not set to these colours.
Aditionally with bingata, a single stencil is used for the pattern compared to most stencil dyes where multiple stencils are used to dye separate colours. This results in the colours blending beautifully in places where colours overlap, adding depth and liveliness to the patterns.
Originating from the 14th century during a prosperous period in Ryukyu (now Okinawa), the bingata took inspiration from textile art obtained from trade with Indonesia, China, and Java.
Formally worn only by royalty and people of high status, it is now enjoyed by many, and is one of the most famous crafts made in Okinawa.
How it Started
Bingata is said to originate from the 14th to 15th century, though some state it was earlier. Ryukyuans took inspiration from textile art obtained from trade, including Indian chintz, Indonesian batik, and Chinese stencil dyed prints, and developed their own style and techniques.
At first, bingata were only worn to display high political status, and in occasion by performers to entertain guests from outside Okinawa. On top of that, different colours were strictly assigned to different statuses, such as gold and yellow as formal wear for royalty, white on top of coloured wear as casual wear, light blue for nobles, and indigo for the third highest status. Rather surprisingly, once the dyeing process for one kimono for royalty or nobility had been finished, the stencil was returned or burned, as creating or wearing the same pattern as royalty and nobility was prohibited.
The Two Bingata Crisis'
By bad luck, the art of bingata was almost lost twice. The first crisis was in the late 1800s, when Ryukyu, a monarchy, was dissolved and became a domain of japan, being newly named Okinawa. The second was WWII, after the battle of Okinawa.
In 1879, Ryukyu was annexed and dissolved by Japan, turning Ryukyu into Okinawa prefecture, relocating the king of Ryukyu to Tokyo. Now, without the massive funding from royalty, bingata craftsmen resorted to making bingata for commoners, going from exclusively making formal wear to making wrapping cloths for transporting goods.
Before the bingata could be recuperated, the second crisis hit on 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. This battle was dreadful, killing almost half the population of Okinawa in two months. After the war, two people coming from families that had been creating bingata for royalty since the dynastic period in Ryukyu returned to the battlefield and worked to revive bingata. These two, Chinen Sekko and Shiroma Eiki, started off by picking up maps left by sodiers to use as stencils, broken records as spatulas, bullet casings as piping tips for glue, lipstick as pigment, and successfully revived the art of bingata. By 1950, a preservation society for bingata had been founded, and by 1984 it was officially designated as one of the traditional crafts of Japan.
How a Bingata is Made
The process of bingata is quite interesting as it puts on view the resourcefulness and skill of people. Lets look into the process of bingata making, which makes use of dried out tofu and human hair...
1. Designing Like any craft, bingata starts with sketches, which eventually develop into a stencil. 2. Katabori: stencil cutting The carefully crafted stencil is then cut so it can be used as a mould for the glue. The areas where colour will be added are left, while the parts where dye resisting glue will be applied will be cut out. A characteristic of bingata is its connected patterns made from a single stencil. Traditionally the stencil is cut on top of dried and hardened Okinawan tofu. This is because the hardened tofu works as a cutting board, while its natural oils protect the cutter from damage and rusting. In the end a mesh is stuck to the stencil to strengthen the stencil, similar to a silkscreen. 3. Norioki: applying dye resisting glue After placing the stencil on fabric, the glue is evenly spread on the stencil and fabric with a spatula. The glue usually consists of glutinous rice flour, rice bran, and salt. Depending on weather and humidity, slight adjustments have to be made to the hardness of the glue and amount of salt to prevent cracking or melting of the glue. 4. Mamehiki: applying soybean juice Mamehiki is a process where soy bean juice is brushed evenly on the fabric to act as a colour fixing and smudge preventing solution. This juice is created by soaking the soy beans in water, grinding with a mortar and pestle, and straining the pulp away. This solution will only last two days before it starts to rot, so they can only be made in small batches. 5. Irosashi: dyeing Finally, after a process of applying glue and preparing the fabric, it is ready to be dyed. For this step, mineral pigments that are dissolved in soy bean juice are used, which only lasts around two days just like the soy bean juice used in mamehiki. When dyeing, two brushes are held in one hand; one is used to apply the colour, and the other to brush the colour into the fabric. 6. Kumatori: shading Kumatori, is an important process of adding shading and accent colours to create depth to the patterns. For this process the choice of brush is crucial, with animal hair being too coarse, human hair, especially young hair is favoured. These brushes are handmade in Okinawa. 7. Steaming and Washing The fabric is then steamed to fix the colours, and washed in water to remove the glue. This is the end of the process for designs where there is no background colour, while there are a couple more steps for adding a background colour. 8. Norifuse: covering with glue This step consists of applying dye resistant glue to the previously dyed areas and areas that would remain white. 9. Jizome: background dyeing Now that the previously dyed areas are covered, the entire fabric excluding the patterned areas can be dyed easily. 10. Steaming Like step 7, the fabric is finally steamed and washed. 11.Sewing The process is finally done when the fabric is sewn into the shape of the final product, whether it be kimono, obi, a bag, or handkerchief.
Kyoto and Edo style Bingata
During the Genroku era (mid Edo period), as trade between neighbouring regions increases, Okinawan goods were brought to Edo and Kyoto. Artists from Edo and Kyoto took inspiration from bingata and combined the techniques and characteristics of textile art of their own, resulting in the creation of 'Kyo-bingata' and 'Edo-bingata'.
Kyo-bingata, originating in Kyoto uses dyes for Kyo-yuzen, Kyoto's most known dyeing technique. The colour palette of these dyes can be described as 'hannari', which is also commonly used to describe crafts and goods made in Kyoto. Hannari could be translated into words like 'elegant' and 'beautiful' though the word is correlated more to the vibe of Kyoto-made crafts and arts than simply being elegant or beautiful.
The main characteristic of Edo-bingata is its muted and calm colour palette to suit Edo peoples' style. While Ryukyu-bingata uses a combination of mineral pigments and plant derived dyes, Edo-bingata uses just mineral pigments, resulting in a softer tone overall.
Another significant characteristic is the difference in the number of stencils. Ryukyu-bingata uses one stencil, whereas Edo-bingata uses multiple; some complicated designs may use hundreds of stencils.
Initially, the differences between Ryukyu-bingata, Kyo-bingata, and Edo-bingata were easily identifiable, however as current day bingata artists create completely new ideas, patterns and styles, they have become harder to categorise and identify into these traditional styles.
As times change, Ryukyu-bingata continues to survive, and has evolved through generation of craftsmen who work to preserve this art. Through sharing this article we hope that more people around the globe will develop an interest in this beautiful craft from Okinawa.